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Different Times (Installment I)


Louis orders the sabodet and a bottle of Côte de Nuits Vougeot. The waiter brings the wine and steaming pain Poilâne. Louis nods and the waiter pours. He smells the rich Poilâne.

"Will it be a good day Monsieur?" the waiter asks, as if it does not matter.

"Oui," Louis says, after too long a pause. It's a lie. This day is going to hell fast and the century along with it.

"Bien." The waiter replies. He turns and disappears into the cavernous café.

Louis looks at the wine. Processed purple. It’s for show, not consumption. Window dressing in the age of deception. He turns away in disgust. Shoves his fist in his cheek. Broods about what? Something else, he thinks. Something better. Better times when there has never been better times - for him.

The river below is chilled by the breeze but the afternoon is warm. No, he corrects. The afternoon is a pot of stew. It doesn't make sense. Louis hasn’t been above ground in years. His memory is weak. He struggles to remember the life above. Was it always this way? So much stench?

Across the avenue and over the rusting fences, crowds mill. They peruse empty farmers’ markets and boarded-up shops. The city ebbs with a sea of bodies.

To the eye, to him, it's any other day in the Post-Integration world. But it's not. It's not like that at all. It's not, because something is different. At least for Louis. And the difference is unsettling. It's wrong.

Decaying cobblestone avenues. Human detritus. Rotting vegetables, trash, urine, buzzing insects, both real and machine. There is no joy here. Not even the pretense of it. It's parched. No spirit. Mayhem baked into a veneer of...calm. That's what it is now.

What does that mean? Louis thinks to himself.

Filthy children gawk at corroding bronze horses. Their eyes mere pockmarks. Frozen horse beasts perched atop the stone fountain. A stained fountain, choked with leaves, caked in dust. Still. Fossilized, yet fine. A series of equestrian monoliths in love with art. Staring horse-fossils cast in worthless gold. A yellow stone prized in bygone ages. A stone that keeps. Horses that have long since vanished.

Are we stones of such stature? Or human dust?

Louis shakes his head. Enough, he thinks. The time for brooding is done. It is a different time now.

Louis knows the streets. He has been here. Like the crowds beyond the fences and etched walls, he has scratched life from the food boxes the Glorious City provided. No longer, he thinks. He’s away from that. He used his wits to do it, and a bit of crime. The crime of wanting to live. The crime of thinking.

The men on the other side of the fences glare. Greased chins, with eyes. They watch Louis in the café. They imagine his side. They want to be here, Louis thinks. To live this life. They stare.

They look away now, ashamed. They fear being tagged by the cams. Being marked. They will never be allowed over the walls. They know that. They have resigned themselves to that. Slumped shoulders, defeated but not, living but not, afraid...but not. Waiting...

Louis shakes his head. A dismal life. If existence means suffering, why exist at all? To wait for something better? To resign yourself to hope? To not fight?

Above the festering crowds, the cameras are like sores. Haphazardly cut into buildings, digital eyes that vacuum in every detail. Every movement and expression, noted, measured, compared, calculated. Every gesture. The dead machine eyes are as obvious as the drones adrift in the air. And they are as hated as humans can hate. An emotion lost on the machine-minds.

But the slummers, as they are called, the humans milling about, scratching at the food boxes--have long since relegated the machine eyes and the buzzing drones, to meaningless things. Things to be ignored. Things to hide in the dark corners of nightmares. The game--nay, the human goal--is to live, if only one minute at a time. Days have become years.

Drones, like birds of prey and insects forever buzzing. A zoo. The dying streets of Paris are a cage, a trap -- a prison. New York and every other major city on Earth are the same. Paris is a carcass of magnificence, however. The other cities just don't know it. Their social-minds, programmed and articulated to the end of all details, have forgotten what living is. Heartlessness has no meaning. The idea of it, forgotten. Paris, the heart of the world, is no more. Not by any human standards.

Yet another drone passes by. It distracts Louis. This one is disguised as a dragonfly. It flutters awkwardly, soundless, and jets away. The crowds feign ignorance of all of this. The digital eyes. The overlord machines. Their only concern is the food--the next living minute. They wriggle like drunken worms...for calories. For one more night in this hell, alive. It is all that matters. All that has ever mattered.

Things have changed, and not. Humans have fought soulless beasts for an eternity, Louis thinks. The only difference now? The beasts were not human.

Louis counts the avatars. It’s becoming more difficult to see them each year. Tech improves. No doubt the avatars are police. Police Avs to ensure the fabled tranquility of Paris. In reality? To ensure that the crowds do not riot in the slums--as slummers are want to do.

The waiter brings the sabodet and Gaperon cheese now. It breaks Louis’ bleak revelry. The waiter excuses himself. At least he is mostly real, Louis realizes, except for his clothing. The waiter’s fine suit is a cheap projection, probably Chinese. The food is still real, he reminds himself. Even if prepared by machines. Anything is better than the filthy food boxes of the slums.

The Gaperon is well peppered and the Louis spreads it on the toast. He eats half and pretends to drink the purple Vougeot. He checks the time. Three o'clock.

The late lunch crowd is thinning. Some wink out as he expects. More avatars to make it seem that the café is popular. It is not. The food is subpar. But the machines don’t care and the waiter is only a pretense. An ill informed effort to have people lead meaningful lives when they don’t need to work at all.

To punctuate the thought, Louis hears the waiter snoring behind the bar. There’s a half-empty bottle of wine nearby. What a sham, he thinks. All this make-work to settle the fragile emotions of the Inner City, surrounded by its own walls. To make them feel that Paris, some small core of it, remains the artistic soul of the world.

The combattants de la liberté come now. He nods slightly. They, like him, are freedom fighters. What remains of La Résistance, from the V-Wars. They are a small group, self-funded. Supported by a complex underground, as fractured and ineffective as it is. But hasn't that always been the history of revolutionaries?

Star sits first. She’s the geek of the small group, but her looks don’t match her profession. She could pass for an Italian movie star anywhere--if there were still movie stars. Louis never tires of watching her. But he keeps his distance.

Kojak sits next. He's ten years younger. A front-liner during the V-Wars. Listed as deceased, a fact Louis uses to their advantage. Today, Kojak's playing the part of a lazy businessman. And like the TV legend of a century ago, he has something in his mouth. A pencil, not a lollipop. Louis wonders where he found it. A museum?

A crossword puzzle completes Kojak’s ensemble. It’s not bad cover, Louis thinks. But what does he know? They aren't subtle field operatives. This is new to them, a last-minute decision. But the newspaper in Kojak's hand is awkward. Contrived.

Louis is not his real name. None of them have ever used their given names. Not that it matters. They're not listed anywhere. Not recorded in any church or government office. Not filed in any hospital. They are, for all intents and purposes, ghosts. What’s more, they’ve been kept out of the Integration and they intend to keep it that way. Years ago, they would have been "off the grid."

Right now, Kojak has a job to do and Louis gives him the signal. Kojak disappears into the café and makes his way to the restroom. Inside he finds the bodyguard. It’s the first hurdle of this operation and critical to its success.

After a brief struggle, Kojak dispatches the bodyguard. He sits the heavy body on the toilet and closes the door. His pencil is put to good use.

A moment later Kojak is outside, with the bodyguard’s cell pad. He gives it to Louis and returns to his table. Louis breathes a sigh of relief. Relax he tells himself. Keep your cool. If this is going to work, you need to stay focused. Any spike in his heart rate or release of pheromones can trigger the system—the Integration’s alerts. He takes deep breaths now. Long months of practice are paying off.

A fly drone buzzes by but nothing happens. Good, Louis thinks.

The American couple, John and Myra Kremel, sit at a table. They are under an umbrella. Cheese and bread are spread out before them, but they are not enjoying the food. Next to the river's edge, they study the crowds in the slums. Their absent bodyguard is not yet a concern.

© 2020 Jack Shorebird


Jack Shorebird (author) from Central Florida, US on April 19, 2020:

Thanks Dora. I'm planning to have the next one out today...with any luck. Hope it stays interesting.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 19, 2020:

First, it seemed that Louis' brain is in a fog. By the end of the story, he's got my interest. What will he be engaged in by the next episode?

Jack Shorebird (author) from Central Florida, US on April 17, 2020:

Thanks RoadMonkey. I try.

Actually have more.

Want to tweak next installment.

RoadMonkey on April 17, 2020:

Great start. Interesting themes. Look forward to the next episode.

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